When Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns to her apartment after a trip, she's greeted by a cardboard construction that's taken over her entire living room. An echoey voice greets her from within, explaining that it's much larger inside than out and that he's lost. Annie's exasperated when he begs her not to destroy it. She must mount a rescue mission because "Dave Made a Maze."
When I first heard the concept of cowriter (with Steven Sears)/director Bill Watterson's feature film debut, winner of of the Audience Award at the Slamdance and Boston Underground Film Festivals, I immediately recalled Mark Z. Danielewski's 2000 novel 'House of Leaves,' an imaginative art book that tells the story of a family who moves into a small home only to discover it is *much* bigger on the inside than out. That book took its intriguing premise in many directions, all adding up to a provocative mystery. Unfortunately, Watterson appears to have put most of his energy into crafty art direction and practical effects, sorely neglecting story and character development. "Dave Made a Maze" might elicit a few giggles, but its padded 80 minute running time becomes an endurance test.
Dave (Nick Thune) warns Annie that it is too dangerous for her to enter as he has outfitted his construction with obstacles and booby traps. He advises her to call Gordon (Adam Busch), but only Gordon. When Gordon's at a loss, he decides to call Leonard (Scott Krinsky, "Tangerine"). Soon Annie finds her living room filled with friends and hangers on, including documentary filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak, "American Splendor"), his boom operator (Second City's Frank Caeti) and cameraman (Scott Narver), and two random Flemish tourists. In all the chaos, Annie packs a backpack and announces she's going in. Everyone follows.
The maze, actually a labyrinth (the distinction becomes mythically important), amazes Dave's friends as they move from one cardboard themed room to the next. A card room is followed by a piano keyboard room where slipping into the giant 'black' keys produces sound. A giant cardboard head spews paper into a room guarded by two giant origami birds of prey. But when Jane (Kirsten Vangsness, TV's 'Criminal Minds') steps on a cardboard pedal jutting from the floor, the first member of the group is slain, survivors sprayed with red crepe paper streamers. As the rescue team, now reunited with Dave, dwindles in numbers, they must face their biggest challenge, the Minotaur (John Hennigan, Netflix's 'GLOW') guarding its labyrinth.
The best Sears and Watterson have come up with for Dave's motivation is some vague notion of artistic frustration and Dave's inability to finish what he's started (the latter drives the last third of the film, Dave insisting his maze be finished in order to destroy it). Rhyming punnery replaces wit, Dave and Gordon's beard baiting an apparent in-joke. The film grows repetitive in action and dialogue, at one point diverting to a senseless scene between Annie and Dave in their kitchen involving lots of paper costume changes and different readings of the same lines. Most of the characters are either bland or grating (they're much more enjoyable when they briefly turn into cardboard puppets), Frank Caeti's classic silent comedy the best of an amateurish ensemble. Maybe that explains why no one seems particularly upset by the numerous deaths that occur.
"Dave Made a Maze" is a good example of how a lot can be done with a little, the action confined to one real room, an outdoor dumpster and a whole lot of fabulous arts and crafts spaces. But without giving us a reason to care, this house of cards comes tumbling down.
Robin also gives "Dave Made a Maze" a C.
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